Save this Marriage

How Much Effort Have You Invested in Your Marriage?

July 26, 2009

I have seen the worst marriages, marriages characterized by many years of dysfunctional and abusive behaviors, change. I believe that there are several reasons for this.

  1. Each spouse stopped blaming the other for their problems.
  2. They took honest and meaningful responsibility for their own issues.
  3. They stopped playing the "If you go first then I'll go…" game.
  4. They each took responsibility for their own role in the relationship's problems, regardless of the size that role played in the problems or of the other spouse's actions or in-action.
  5. They let go of their resentments and grudges, often learning to see their lives in a more spiritual context. (Keeping a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to become ill.)
  6. They stopped trying to change their spouse.
  7. They learned to appreciate, express, nurture and support their spouse's uniqueness.
  8. They stopped keeping score of who is responsible for what and who did what when; i.e., they learned to think in terms of giving rather than receiving, and trusted that they would receive what was needed.

When two people have the commitment and will to accomplish the intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth necessary to change on their own, regardless of the other's actions, things can happen that are worth staying in the marriage for.

When we have done what we are supposed to do, when we have exerted the maximum effort that the situation we are facing calls for and deserves, then we can, in the deepest faith, calmly give over the problem over to our Creator. At that moment, when we have done our part, it is not our job to complete the task. Unless we exert that effort, however, we are responsible for the outcomes.

If you are having issues in your marriage how do you answer this question: Have you put in the consistent time and effort to be able to say, "I have done all I can do"?

Heroics or Hope Dope?

July 19, 2009

Like medical doctors trying to assess a patient's best chances, therapists are tormented at times with the question of the hopelessness or hopefulness of a marriage or any other relationship. Everyone is anxious to know if the "broken" spouse/child/parent/sibling can be fixed. With desperation in their voices, they ask, "Can medication, therapy or other interventions turn him/her around so s/he can stop being so depressed, anxious, addicted or angry?" How can a therapist say, "There is no hope"? We are trained to be hopeful, to give a lot of advice and try an endless variety of interventions. Many hold that no marriage is hopeless, that with a little more of the three As [affection, attention and appreciation], any relationship can be terrific. After all, people addicted to junk food do join support groups and lose weight, just as smokers give up cigarettes and internet addicts set firm limits on themselves. So who is to say that a nasty-tempered, lazy, irresponsible, untrustworthy or self-centered person cannot improve?

Yes, anyone can change. However, before change takes place, four conditions must be met: 1) The person must be aware that something is wrong. 2) He must feel ashamed of his behavior. 3) He must realize that he alone is responsible for his actions and not blame others or blame his circumstances. 4) He must be willing to put endless hours of effort into learning healthier habits and practice them over and over again, as Maimonides prescribes in the Laws of Deot (ch. 1):

"The Sages taught, "Even as G‑d is called gracious, so be gracious; even as He is called merciful, so be merciful; even as He is called holy, be holy, … long suffering, abounding in kindness, righteous and upright, perfect, mighty and powerful." These qualities are good and right and a human being should cultivate the—and thus imitate G‑d, as far as he can. How shall a man train himself in these dispositions so that they become ingrained? Let him practice again and again…and repeat them continually until they become easy and are no longer irksome to him."

Just as it takes effort to learn an instrument or a new language, it takes enormous effort for most people to be consistently kind-hearted, diligent, responsible, reliable and reasonable. Nothing good happens without constant effort. And the impetus for this change must come from within the person. The world's best therapists and the most loving spouse cannot succeed in getting a smoker to quit, or an internet addict to turn off the computer or a compulsive criticizer to treat others with love and respect unless the person himself says, "Enough! I no longer want to be a disgusting boor who is controlled by my animal nature! I want to stop hurting myself and everyone around me! I'm willing to go through whatever it takes, including the pain of feeling deprived, depressed and even a little insane, to shed my old habits and become a self-respecting and loving human being." Until he humbly realizes that he needs help and that he wants to leave the darkness, his animal nature will dominate.

Very often, a suffering spouse is told by his or her advisor: "If you show love and respect, the person will soon give you love and respect in return." So the spouse returns home, full of hope, determined to overlook all flaws, to be silent when insulted and to be compliant and accommodating—24/7. And when things don't change the hapless spouse feels ashamed, sure that, "I must not have tried hard enough, didn't do enough. I'm a failure for not being able to get him/her to change."

But change cannot take place when one side takes one hundred percent responsibility for change and the other side does nothing. If the person is so seriously addicted, or so broken by early abuse, abandonment or trauma that they do not even realize that their behavior needs changing, no amount of outside pressure will pull them out of the darkness. According to the Midrash, only twenty percent of the Israelites partook in the exodus from Egypt; eighty percent were left behind. Interestingly, according to statistics, about twenty percent of those who join self-help groups succeed in becoming self-reliant.

I have met many good-natured people who suffered horrific abuse or were highly addicted and then, thanks to a recovery program, became fully dedicated to healing. Healing means that they do everything in their power to act in a loving manner, to whatever extent they can manage to do so, at any given moment. They control their anger, do not give in to harmful temptations and model good character traits. The key is action. Sitting in a therapist's office and talking will not create change. They must get out into the real world and act in a responsible manner. If a person is so wrapped up in his own misery or addictive cravings that he can think of no one but himself, there is no way that the person will change.

Signs that a person is not really interested in change at this time:

* The person blames you, or others, for his addictions and outbursts.

* The person makes excuses for his addictions and outbursts, e.g., "I was frustrated/provoked/nervous/hungry/exhausted/sick/fired from my job, etc."

* When confronted, the person denies that he has a problem.

* The person continues to harm himself or others.

* The person keeps saying, "I cannot control myself."

* The person justifies his nastiness, saying, "I was just being honest." Or, "This is the only way I know of to get you to give me what I want!"

* They demand that you prove your "love," by forcing you to be subservient to them or to indulge in their addictions as well.

* The person gets pleasure from demeaning, dominating and destroying you or himself.

Don't feel guilty or ashamed that you have been unable to extricate your spouse, sibling, parent or child from whatever illness or addiction is holding them captive. As more and more people seem to fall victim to emotional illnesses and addictions, those of us who want to help must be careful not to be drawn into the chaos along with them.

No Criticism Please!

July 12, 2009

Criticism hurts. It hurts so much it can destroy any relationship it touches. Critical parents push their kids away. Critical mothers- or fathers-in-law alienate their children's spouses. Critical bosses cause employees to quit their jobs. It should be no surprise then that criticism can also wreak havoc on a marriage.

Criticism does not have to be verbal. It is, after all, an attitude of rejection and that attitude can be conveyed in many ways: a frown, an unhappy vibe, a sigh, or even silence — all can convey rebuke, disappointment or displeasure. The critical attitude communicates a lack of acceptance. It's the complete opposite of praise, celebration, appreciation, pleasure or pride. When people experience the rejection of criticism they suffer intense emotional pain. They desperately want to avoid the source of that pain – the critical person in their lives.

Despite the cost of criticism, most spouses use this communication tool liberally. When upset, irritated or frustrated with their partner, they say so — with words or otherwise. They think it's their "right" to honestly show their feelings. They don't seem to notice or care that exercising this right can only cause them harm. Indulging in negativity squelches love. Yes, the place is a mess; yes, I did forget to pay the bill; yes, my manners could use some improvement – but if you constantly point out my flaws I won't like you very much. And yet, in the moment, people ignore this reality, reaching instead for the instant emotional gratification of being right.

Avoiding, Reducing & Eliminating Criticism

Criticism can literally destroy a marriage – it is a very dangerous tool. Like anger, it "undoes" love and harms its victims. As it states in Proverbs: "a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but harsh words break the spirit." Hurting one's partner hurts one's marriage. Therefore, a person who wants to be happily married should resolve to keep critical communications down to the barest minimum. Even if one's spouse is seriously flawed, criticism has to be avoided.

Follow the 95-5 Rule: 95% of communications should be pleasant, positive, warm, up-beat and otherwise good-feeling. Another 5% can be slightly less than good-feeling, including: instructions, grumpy moods and, among other things, criticism. This doesn't leave much space for criticism, as you can see.

If you want to correct a spouse's behavior, use positive reinforcement for the opposite behavior (i.e. get very excited about a cleaned dish rather than critical about an unclean one). Use humor (not sarcasm) to make some points. When you decide you want to use part of your tiny criticism allotment, then do so very carefully in order to minimize the damage. Stay away from insults, character assignation, harsh language, speaking in a loud voice and so on. Use the sandwich approach instead: positive, critical part, positive again.

If there are bigger issues to resolve, seek marriage counseling. Instead of criticizing and complaining. Let a professional gently guide your spouse to more appropriate behavior.

Removing criticism from your marriage can only help. Even if your spouse is the critical one, your own efforts can raise the marriage to a higher level. Never sink down to the bad behavior of your partner in order to try to make things better – the failure rate of that strategy is 100%. Be the best spouse you can be and ask G‑d to bless your efforts with success. You can even ask Him to help your spouse improve his or her problematic behaviors – since you can always pray for anything at all and G‑d has the power to solve every problem. Your positive efforts are sure to bring positive results in the easiest, most pleasant way possible.

The All or Nothing Syndrome

July 5, 2009

Many of our relationships are at times complicated and difficult. We are born into families that we're supposed to feel close with and yet enmity between siblings and other relatives is well documented (perhaps starting with Cain and Abel?). Neighbors are supposed to act "neighborly" – but feuds are often just as common as friendships. Certainly in marriage, the most intimate of relationships, we are at a loss to explain the discord and frustration. The grief over separation and divorce is widespread and intense, just as that over chronic illness or death.

What can be done when one partner feels alone, misunderstood, and weary of the struggle to maintain some semblance of marital harmony? It is so easy to allow past hurts and fears for the future to shut ourselves off from people in our lives. When difficulties arise, it is only human nature to focus on what's not working, what's not perfect, rather than what could possibly be workable. As time goes on, that focus on imperfection gains in momentum – eclipsing all that is good and positive. Because the pain and darkness are so pervasive – it feels as if "it's all wrong" or "there's nothing good anymore." The walls that are built seem to be impenetrable. We get stuck in the emotional "cement" of "all – or nothing at all" – there is only right and wrong – no grey area.

This is well illustrated by a case I recently dealt with. Mindy and Yosef (not their actual names) came in for counseling. They had been "embattled" for several years and were on the verge of separating. A brief inquiry into their backgrounds revealed that Yosef grew up without a mother. She died shortly after his birth. His father raised him and his two brothers alone. And, although his father is remembered positively, Yosef learned at an early age to survive without a mother's nurturing or the bond with his mother. Today he is a successful professional and a caring father to their two little daughters, but he has difficulty identifying feelings and is overwhelmed by Mindy's "moods" – i.e. her "over-the-top emotions" as he calls them.

Mindy grew up in a home where there was constant bickering. Little attention was paid to the four children. They were always told to figure things out by themselves, and they grew up without much direction or guidance. When she got married, Mindy was looking for emotional support and validation. When Yosef so often distanced himself from her feelings, she felt betrayed and bitter. She was almost at the point of "no return" when she finally sought out counseling.

Both Mindy and Yosef had little education about marriage, problem solving, commitment, or devotion. Their expectations were at polar opposites: he expected to be left alone emotionally. She expected to be able to share her emotional life whenever the need arose. Because of the wounds they had both suffered as children, these expectations, when unmet, grew and festered and caused pain and terrible frustration for both of them. They held onto past hurts and difficulties like huge weights that refused to be let go. For example, among their many "mis-matched" experiences, Mindy recalled – with tears – the sadness and anger she felt at Yosef not being at the birth of her eldest daughter. She felt so afraid and utterly alone. It took some time for Yosef to respond to his wife. He remembers only the terror he felt at that moment. At first he couldn't connect with his feelings, but, as we discussed what had happened, he realized that feeling of terror was related to his own mother's death. As a result of her death, he was so consumed by his own fear that he had procrastinated and distracted himself with something at work, thereby missing the birth. Although he tried to "make up" for it at the next birth, it haunted their relationship. Mindy felt this was an unforgivable act on his part.

As we spoke, it was evident that they were in agreement that there was no abuse or destructive addictions on the part of either spouse. So, rather than launching into what was difficult in the marriage, I asked each of them to list what brought them together – what they appreciated and felt good about their partner's behavior. After some thought, they were able to come up with several positive attributes. They both expressed some surprise about what the other spouse had written.

Using this as a starting point, we discussed what is "normal" in a relationship. They began to understand how their respective upbringings created many of the deficits they both experience. They saw the need for education: for practical "tools" for problem resolution, negotiating and compromise; for learning to emphasize what is working in the marriage (rather than what is not working), for focusing on the present moment and avoiding the pitfalls of past or future thinking. In addition, the "all-or-nothing-at-all" attitude that both had maintained was seen as sabotaging any good in the marriage.

The fact that Yosef was agreeable to continue counseling was an extremely important factor in helping to strengthen this marriage. (Although when one partner is "not available" – it is still possible for the other one to gain in the wisdom and courage to find places within the relationship that are workable). The couple progressed in their willingness to re-frame – to see their relationship in a different context – and "soften" the erroneous beliefs and false expectations that were working against the relationship. They also tried to internalize the concept of "forgiveness" – forgiveness for everyone and everything that had brought them to this point. In Hebrew the word for "forgiveness" is mechila, spelled with the Hebrew letters mem, chet, yud,and hey. The word for illness is machala, spelled with the Hebrew letters mem, chet, and hey. Illnesses are often times the result of built up stresses and negativity weakening the body, thus allowing foreign organisms to take hold and make a person sick. The inability to let go of past wrongs can trap a person in a weakened state. That all important "yud", present in the word mechila, is what makes the difference between being stuck – and moving on. "Yud" – the smallest yet most powerful letter in the aleph bet….also alludes to "Yid" – the essence of a Jew, an essence that is mirrored Above.

After a few sessions, we created a "visual" in which I asked them to be in this present moment – to feel that just now they could concentrate on what is good about their marriage; their daughters, their place in the community, their goodwill to be sitting together at this time. I guided them towards the knowledge that there never was any intent to harm, only the lack of education, which along with life's circumstances had made the wall between them seem too thick. Perhaps, for this moment, it was possible to allow for forgiveness: of each other, of G‑d, of all the situations and circumstances that had contributed to their struggle— and now, for a moment, to put the pain in a raft and send it out to sea.

Initially, there was some resistance to this new way of thinking, but slowly both Mindy and Yosef began to accept more fully the reality of their relationship. Like any couple, they could eventually learn to live with their wounds, without hurting each other.

Will it ever feel perfect? Will the struggle get easier? Perhaps a more realistic question is whether or not each person will be willing to consider their marriage a "working relationship" in which the reality of the moment, combined with sincere effort, can eventually override the hurts of the past and the anxieties about the future.

Feeling lonely in your marriage? Constant fighting, arguing and bickering? Money problems keeping your apart? Or is jealousy ruining your intimacy?

Even the best of marriages experience times of trial, while some marriages seem doomed to constant ugly conflict.

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